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Family Stories, Ethnic Traditions and Easter Witches

By Daniel Hubbard | April 3, 2010

This last Thursday, my children did what they always do on Maundy Thursday (the Thursday before Easter). They put on old skirts and aprons. They each put their hair up in a kerchief. They each got a basket, a toy cat and a broom. With a little makeup they became “Easter Witches.” Then they did what only can be described as trick-or-treating.

I assume that this sounds very odd to most people. It is the kind of thing that by being odd, seemingly misplaced (it isn’t Halloween after all) and simply unexpected can and will trigger our minds to store away a memory. If you saw it you would remember it. If you were told about it by a family member, you would remember it. However, it is a memory that has nothing to which the listener can relate it. Without any reinforcement and with no connections to anything else remembered, it will change and fade with missing details replaced at each retelling. It is exactly the kind of thing that could lead to a family story that lives on, slowly mutating with time, even if the tradition itself is not passed down.

There are so many ethic traditions that might lead to odd family stories. Each one can teach us something about from where we came, not just in terms of a place where our ancestors lived but in terms of the long lost mental framework in which they lived.

Easter Witches

This particular activity, dressing as a witch for Maundy Thursday is of ethnic origin. It originated in Sweden at least two hundred years ago. If your great-great-grandmother told stories of her childhood to her  American born children, the part about Easter witches just might have seemed worth passing on by later generations. At first, because it sounded like fun, then because it sounded so strange. By now it could be a family story with barely recognizable origins—something too odd to be explained, seemingly lost in the mists of time. I wonder how many people have that kind of story in their family. Something that seems so weird but that would turn out to have some connection to a tradition from another culture if investigated. It would be the touch of an ethnic origin of which today one is just barely conscious, if that.

Tracing Easter witches (“Påskkärringar”) back in time shows how traditions drift and how far a family story based on those traditions could wander. Modern Easter witches aren’t nearly as scary as their Halloween counterparts. They wear bright colors and have rosy, not green, cheeks. They don’t say “Trick-or-treat,” they wish you a “Happy Easter.” They might even deliver a hand drawn Easter card.

Modern Easter Witches

Nevertheless, Easter witches fit a common motif. Ancient Celtic traditions landed on the night before All Saint’s (All Hallow’s) Day, giving us the foundation for Halloween. That is part of a pattern that tends to place the evil and the preternatural just before a particularly holy day. Old folk beliefs often required frightening away spirits as they tried to infiltrate our world just as a particularly holy time was about to dawn.

Children dressed as Easter witches seem to have been common in the west of Sweden by the mid nineteenth century. They probably began to appear many decades earlier. What those children were doing grew out of old folk tradition. The origins of those folk traditions are hinted at by something that lives on today. As Easter witches hand out their Easter cards and collect their candy, they say they are on their way to a place called Blåkulla. No such place exists and it never has. Yet, during the witch hysteria of the seventeenth century, hundreds were executed in Sweden, having been accused of traveling there to join the Devil at the great feasts he held at that place on Maundy Thursday. So, something once deadly serious has become part of a culture’s joys of childhood. It is far from the only time that has happened as beliefs and traditions are slowly altered by time.

What odd stories do you have in your family that might be representations of some ethnic tradition far removed from its context and allowed to mutate through time? What might the distant and long ago origins of those traditions be? What might they say about your origins? It is all part of our personal past.

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